Director: John Carney
There is perhaps no genre more divisive among film-goers than the musical. For some people, a well crafted musical number in a film is entrancing and magical, while others find it impossible to suspend their disbelief for characters telling a story through song. As someone whose most anticipated 2017 December release is not The Last Jedi but rather The Greatest Showman, it should be obvious which side I’m on.
As my entry for the Republic of Ireland, I’ve chosen one of my favourite musicals of the twenty-first century so far, John Carney’s Once. The film has been acclaimed for its bittersweet, folk-inspired soundtrack – even winning 2007’s Oscar for Best Song with “Falling Slowly”, but it is also so enjoyable and touching that not even critics of the musical genre can resist its charms.
Once opens with a down-on-his-luck musician performing on the streets of Dublin. He is a talented singer and songwriter, but struggling to get by. He is an optimist by nature, but jaded by a recent breakup with a woman he still loves. One evening, an immigrant woman from the Czech Republic approaches him and strikes up a conversation. The two quickly become friends, bonded by a shared feeling of loneliness and lack of purpose. Throughout the film, the two main characters remain unnamed – the credits list them only as “Guy” and “Girl”. As a storytelling device this makes the characters seem universal and archetypal – allowing them to reveal emotional truths independent of any one time or place.
The Guy lives above a vacuum-cleaner repair shop with his aging father. The Girl lives in a tiny flat with her mother and young daughter, as well as an endless procession of neighbours who crowd in to watch the building’s only television. Amongst these humble surroundings a tender and subtle romance between the two begins to play out against a backdrop of faded storefronts and rainswept bus stops. When the Girl reveals that she, too, is a musician, the pair find an even stronger connection through music. He plays for her the songs he has written and encourages her to accompany him. In time, she even opens up enough to share one of her own, deeply personal compositions. She plays the piano, but cannot afford one, so the two hide away in an instrument shop where she knows the owner, and perform one of the film’s best musical numbers – the aforementioned duet “Falling Slowly”.
Musicals are often filmed in a style which is deliberately artificial, but Once is so natural and unpretentious that it feels like a real relationship that just happened to have been caught on camera. This is perhaps aided by the film’s low budget – which meant the scenes of the streets of Dublin were filmed without permits on a discrete camera with a long-focus lens. The film’s non-professional actors were thus more at ease, and passersby became unwitting extras in much the same way as in my previous entry, the Iraqi film Underexposure. At times Once soars with the romance of a fairy-tale, and at times it is heartrendingly real. With a fleeting run time that just scrapes ninety minutes, it’s impressive just how invested we become in the film’s characters and relationships. There’s very little reason not to do yourself a favour and seek this film out.